While some continue to argue about whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio overreacted in preparing for this week’s non-blizzard, it’s a good time to consider a snowstorm ritual that I think actually has much deeper political and philosophical implications. Or maybe it doesn’t, but it’s a pet peeve of mine. I’m talking about the ominous warnings intoned every winter by fainthearted heart doctors and breathlessly repeated by blow-dried news anchors about the Grave Dangers of Snow Shoveling.
It’s a similar phenomenon to the panic stirred up by shortsighted eye doctors and the same breathless blow-dried news readers every time there’s a solar eclipse. You know, “Don’t look at the sun during the eclipse or your retinas will burn up”—so everyone walks around in dark Stevie Wonder glasses staring down at the sidewalk, horrified that if they glance up for a second they’ll be immediately struck blind like Saul on the road to Damascus. Of course, what the doomful eclipse warnings leave out is that normally no one ever looks directly at the sun for more than an instant, and that the danger is in prolonged gazing at it prompted by fascination with the solar show. But the sun is no more inherently dangerous to anyone’s eyes during an eclipse than at any other time.
Snow Shoveling Is Great, Cheap Exercise
Like the eclipse alarmists, the snow-shoveling panic-mongers leave out a key fact. Shoveling can be perilous to your cardiac health if you’re neither young nor fit. It’s strenuous exercise, after all, and thus no way for a sedentary middle-aged or older person to start getting in shape—just like running a half-marathon or climbing a mountain isn’t. But the “you’ll have a heart attack” nannies rarely add this qualifier. The pathetic result is that there are quite a few physically fit middle-aged and even younger men (yeah, call me sexist, but you do know that we’re talking about guys here, so let’s just acknowledge it)—even some who do run half-marathons or climb mountains—who live in irrational terror that they’ll keel over clutching their chests the moment they touch a shovel.
The fact is that snow shoveling is wonderful exercise, a perfect cardio and strength-training combination—kind of like cross-country skiing with weights. And you get to do it outside, in the pristine beauty of a fresh snowfall. It’s also guilt-free and, especially for those with young children, marital-discord-free exercise: “I can’t watch the kids; I have to shovel the walk” goes over a lot better than, “I can’t watch the kids; I have to play racquetball.” More to the point here, if you’re in good shape—or even if you’re not, but you’re below the age when anyone other than your mother is really worried that you’re going to drop dead of a coronary—it’s no more of a risk than a vigorous workout at the gym.
An Explanation of the Hysteria
So what explains the snow shoveling hysteria of the media and the medical community, and the public’s receptiveness to it? The answers that suggest themselves aren’t encouraging for anyone concerned about the state of culture and society. The ever-present fear of litigation undoubtedly plays a role in the failure to qualify the scare warnings with common sense. Adding “if you’re old and out of shape” to the “be careful” mantra, like newscasters used to, is almost like holding up a big “deep pockets” sign for the freak case of the 27-year-old triathlete who does buy the farm while clearing the stoop. You can practically see Legal crossing out that line in the script.
But more fundamentally, I think the explanation lies in the risk-averse, strength-averse, effeminized ethos of contemporary cultural liberalism, an increasingly dominant worldview in which “the cardinal rule seems to be that no one must ever get hurt.” I generally despair of how to fight this broader social trend. But for this one small symptom of it I have a simple solution. Scare a liberal: Shovel your sidewalk. Even if you haven’t had a stress test.